Movie Review: ‘Olympus Has Fallen’

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Die Hard on a White House.

That’s basically it right there. You have your former law enforcer — here his name is Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) and he used to be Secret Service assigned to protect the President (Aaron Eckhart). During a snowstorm, Some Damn Thing hit the Presidential Limo’s windshield and fishtailed the car nearly off a bridge. Banning was able to save the President, but not his wife, and since the President can’t stand to be reminded of that night, he has Banning reassigned.

Okay, then you have your terrorists commandeering a building — here they attack the White House in a cargo plane the same day the President (whose name is Benjamin Asher, and whom I’ll be referring to as Asher for the remainder of this), Vice President, and Secretary of State are meeting with the South Korean Prime Minister.

As the gang retreats to the Presidential Bunker, one of the PM’s aides reveals himself as Kang Yeonsak (Rick Yune), a North Korean terrorist with a backstory that blah, blah, blah. He shoots a lot of people in the head and wants to blow up things. That’s all we need to know.

You have your former law-enforcer invading the building — in this case, Banning storms the White House after Kang’s goons take out every Secret Service man and Marine on the premises.

You have your The Hero Talking to People on The Outside — in this case Speaker of the House Morgan Freeman and head of the Secret Service Angela Bassett — the movie gets bonus points because they’re black, just like Reginald ValJohnson and Samuel L Jackson, and it gets even more bonus points for having General Robert Forster as the hothead who wants the hero to give up because We’ve Got Everything Under Control Here, And Don’t Need the Likes of You Screwing It Up — and it goes without saying that one of General Forster’s hotheaded decisions is to send a team of helicopters to the White House exactly when an experimental anti-helicopter gun is operational. Another point for an exploding helicopter crashing into the building.

You also have your turncoat — here it’s former Secret Service man Dylan McDermott, who fools Banning for all of five seconds.

And yes, I was expecting Banning to, at one point, say, “Yippee-Ki-Yea!”

There’s a handful of other similarities — Banning appears to have a few marital problems, but his wife (Radha Mitchell) has so little screen time and importance that she really doesn’t need to be there. Maybe there’ll be more in the extended cut, but she doesn’t really add anything either, so if her scenes were cut, the flick seems better for it. You also have your computer hacker (Malana Lea), who, as opposed to the loud mouth in the original Die Hard doesn’t say anything (and yet, while she’s able to outsmart every professional hacker in Washington, somehow Banning knows how to cut off the bunker’s communications).

So director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) and writers Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt steal a lot from Die Hard, both in plot and beats, but outside of the most superficial elements, they do get a lot of the action right. For one, Olympus Has Fallen earns the Hell out of its R — this is one of the most brutally violent films I’ve seen in the last five years.

Back-of-the-head-style executions are nasty, brutish, and frequent, and despite that frequency, Fuqua keeps them just so abrupt that they never fail to give a little shock. Olympus isn’t heavy on character development — Banning is much closer to the invincible John McClane of the recent films than he is to the vulnerable guy from the first —  but it wrings plenty of cringes from torturing Melissa Leo, someone they really could kill off.

The set pieces don’t extend far beyond gunning down tons of goons in the White House corridors, but it’s enough to keep your attention. Banning may be a hard guy to root for, and Forster is much too on-the-nose as the secondary antagonist, but the two-hour running time glides by once things get going. At the very least, any high-brows dragged to this will have enough material for twenty dissertations on Olympus as Neo-Conservative Paleo-Propaganda.

Eckhart could easily be a stand-in for Bush, Bassett for Rice, Freeman for Powell, and their light discussion on why it’s necessary for the US to occupy various parts of the globe as, well,  exactly what it is. It’s enough that it’s noticeable, but not much deeper than “Rah! Rah! Rah!” — and I don’t know if we just need some bad guys in our action movies, but the torch has been passed from “terrorists” to “North Koreans” with this and the Red Dawn remake (which did offer more in the way of commentary with its “We’re the insurgents” angle).

Whatever, this is a hard-hitting action flick short on charm, long on brutality, and far, far superior than the most current Die Hard installment.

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